Day 1 Barcelona to Tossa De Mar
We’ve started! But not after a magnificent kit faff at Barcelona airport – assembling bikes, frantically searching for possibly not-packed (yikes!) items. We ceremoniously set off in the wrong direction. A pretty impressive feat given we all had the route loaded onto our Garmin/Wahoo GPS devices. Sheep?
Barcelona twinkled in the sunshine waiting for us. As we cycled across the city, we stopped at maybe 50 traffic light junctions. The snap, crackle and pop noises as we repeatedly clipped out of our pedals reminded me of breakfast, but we were late for lunch: our 3 hour delayed ‘Easy’jet flight meant our planned cycle and photo shoot outside the famous Barcelona cathedral was cancelled.
We passed stalls selling knock-off handbags, hats and scarves, and breathed in the hot smells of chip shops, sweet candy floss and other, less fragrant odours. Gradually, the baked concrete and congestion gave way to peachy pink rendered flats and houses jostling for position along the seafront, and nestling into the hills.
The ride was relatively easy, with a tail wind breezing off the azure blue of the Mediterranean. Ahead of me, I could see the erosion of coastal rocks, and the Lycra in Castelli cycling shorts…
We stopped at a roadside café for a late lunch, to the mild consternation of the waitress. Possibly not expecting twenty-seven Brits with sadly not a word of (useful) Spanish between us. For the remainder of the ride we turned in from the coast a little to skirt lush, green hills, before a smooth, flowing descent into the insult-labelled town of Tossa De Mar.
The group is mostly in fine spirits, a gentle day survived and teething troubles overcome.
Author: Liz Rylott
Day 2 Tossa De Mar to Ricoll
We are clearly creatures of habit, sitting in the same hotel seats for breakfast that we had dinner in. Maybe some familiarity helps settle minor worries elsewhere? Either way, Ali, Jane and I, first group out, set off at 7:30am. The weather was an amicable 17℃, as we wound out way back inland over the small rise from yesterday. I’m on a holiday high and told a series of awful jokes, with Ali and Jane indulging me like responsible parents (not sure how much more they can take). A few miles in we turned onto a gravel track for a few miles and past numerous MTBkers – I elicited a ‘Buenos Dias’ from one of them, and harangued the subsequent 8-9 biker groups with my new-found lingual fluency. Intonation seemed to be key to good a response.
As we progressed, to our left rose the volcanic region of Garrotxa, and Rocacorba, Girona’s most famous cycling climb. We continued past verdant fields of barley, alive with swooping, flitting swallows. This is a beautiful area I now plan to return to.
A few more miles in and we arrived in Girona. A beautiful city. Although still early, and a wee way to go, the cool, shady boulevards were too enticing not to stop. We found a café and Ali got the coffees in. It was here that I commenced the Pyrenean Patisserie collection: Patisserie #1 The Catalan ‘Chew chew’ (photo below). Ok I am spelling phonetically here, but the chew chew is a small croissant, deep fried, then rolled in brown sugar and stuffed with crème patisserie. Glasgow deep-fried Mars bars eat your heart out (ok maybe not the most socially responsible choice of phrase). Obviously it was completely yummy, and held I hold it up as almost certainly nutritionally optimal cycling fuel. As we were leaving, a larger group of our riders pulled up- Chew chews heartily recommended.
We continued our route, choosing not to stop in the beautiful town of Banyoles (where world-renowed banjos are hand-made), and fuelled by chew chews we pressed on over two smaller rises. The mercury rose too… We stopped a couple of times to buy water at small roadside shops; the easy-going, friendly locals bending-over-backwards to help, with endearing patience at our embarrassing lack of Spanish.
At the pun-inviting town of Alot, we stopped in a covered avenue for lunch, with a good chunk of the main group pulling in after us. It was a dark, cool refuge from the baking oven ahead. During this stop, a member of the group was observed chomping left-overs from a previous customer’s plate, sustainable recycling except the customer had only nipped out to the loo… The rest of the group managed to maintain an overall level of discipline, so hopefully Spanish-UK relations not too damaged.
After lunch, we ventured back out into the penetrating rays of the midday sun, and started the 750m climb to the Col De Cubet (1000m). The heat was oppressive, and reading 40℃ on my Garmin, with almost no shade. When the light breeze dropped it was like cycling in a sauna. Gradually, we inched up to the col, then a second small rise. Along the way, we passed over yellow ribbons painted onto the road by supporters of independence for Catalonia from Spain. There are also many Catalonian flags and more ribbons tied around trees and street furniture. After perhaps an hour of boiling my head in a saucepan on the climb, I was rewarded with a blissful decent to the town of Ripoll.
Our welcoming La Trobada hotel provided showers, but only for the lucky earlier arrivals; the town then ran out of water, possibly to be restored tonight. As I type (10pm) I can hear the gurgling sounds from the pipes…
I can also hear fireworks; today (23rd June) the Catalans celebrate Sant Joan: nocturnal festival of fire and food. While they party, I take to my bed, tomorrow is a bigger day.
Author: Liz Rylott
Day 3 Ripoll to Andorra La Vella
An eclectic breakfast mix of local cured sausage, croissant, fruits, yoghurt and crisped bread fuelled the start to our day. Some of us are getting into the swing of the morning routine, but there are a lot of essential items to remember, and at each venue, a specific, complex order. This morning: dress in Lycra, walk to breakfast in non-cycling shoes (breakfast in different building down stairs lethal to anyone shod in cycling shoes), return to room to clean teeth, drop suitcase (with sandals, toothbrush in) near van, remember helmet, gloves, sunglasses, Garmin, heart rate monitor, gels and bars, sports drink-filled bottles (not to be left in fridge), phone, freshly-charged cylinder charger, and cables for phone and Garmin. Return to room for bottles from fridge, think about repeat trip down steps in socks to return key, thank the Wonderful Graham, for taking everyone’s keys back to reception. Apply all remaining items to self/bike, then, assuming you’ve not forgotten anything at all whatsoever, head off.
Managed to nail the routine today (with minor absence of downloaded Day 3 route on Garmin – thanks Jane for today’s navigation) and we headed off along the valley north-west towards the first of the day’s two cols, the Col de la Crueta (1921m). After yesterday’s roasting, the weather was a pleasant 12℃, but rising. Spirits were high in our group of about 8-10 riders, and after skirting round cows in the road, and bantering udder jokes, we finally reached the summit without too much effort. A pleasant cafe awaited, with caffeine kicks all round, but a woeful dearth of patisserie. Today is a holiday in Spain, and possibly the Pyrenees more generally; boulangeries and patisseries fermé.
Duel Spanish/French signposts in La Tour de Carol indicated we were crossing into France, and not long after, Jane and I arrived at a café (after a one mile u-turn, failing to spot the café on first pass). By this time, most of the menfolk were endearingly excited that they had ordered ‘Croc Madames’. Not a French lady with high views on discipline, but a fried egg atop a cheese and ham toastie – French style. We bundled inside and I liberated my best French to the waiter: an Englishman, possibly from York, with fluent French, who politely asked me to repeat my order (and, I think he was hoping for it to be in English).
Following lunch, riders accrued into a bunch as we made our way towards the start of the second and larger climb, the Col de Puymorens (1920m). Nervous jokes were exchanged about maybe not making it to the top, and the group set of apprehensively. The climb seemed never-ending. With no clear sight of the summit until near the top, every switchback was met with another view of the road slashing across the mountain higher up. The group split into twos and threes and the chatter dissolved as we focused our mental attention on anything but the monotony and exertions of climbing. Finally, the summit! In true Andorran style, breath-taking views of the mountains on all sides, and a couple of enormous petrol stations built right on the col.
Wonderful Graham was waiting with the van and gallons of cool, fresh water. But my buddy, and pacer for the ascent, Jeff (thanks Jeff), was in need of a physio massage to his back. Graham obliged in seconds, giving the rest of us the strange sight of a dramatic Pyrenean backdrop with Jeff lying foreground on a massage table. A summit café stop for some of the group, and a flurry of excitement at a possible sighting of the Movistar cyclist Mikel Landa, @MikelLandaMeana). I think I saw him too, maybe this is what seeing a unicorn would be like? He floated up to the summit, then leapt in a graceful arc only to immediately descend back into the valley. Mythical, and possibly what we all secretly think we are like sometimes, when we have a good day on the hills. Maybe?
The ride concluded with an exhilarating descent pretty much to the hotel foyer in Andorra, with showers, a chance to wander the shops selling planet-destroying tat nobody needs, and later, dinner for those savvy enough to beat the surprisingly nippy OAPs to the front of the buffet queue.
Tomorrow, we head towards Andorra Vielha, via two, very steep-looking cols, so time for some sleep.
Author: Liz Rylott
Day 4 Andorra La Vella to Vielha
This Girl on Fire! Alicia Keys was not wrong: today I was utterly roasted as my Garmin topped 48℃!
Although it started at a cool 14℃, it also started in Andorra’s 7:45am rush hour traffic. Despite the beautiful mountain surrounds, the smell and noise of traffic on the duel carriageway, with its plastic grass roundabouts, marred the first few miles. Once we broke free, the peace and views were amazing. As our group started up the first climb of the day, the Port del Canto (1719m), everyone settled into their rhythm, splitting into smaller groups, with the easy 4.5% slope and relative coolness allowing conversation and comradery. Tony Lowe had planned in a gravel option to the route, and while I did not ride this option, I heard it was extremely scenic, with John Myburgh cycling into a rock in his haste to document it (he’s OK, just a pinch flat tyre).
Cycling steadily in a fantastic location gives, for many, a chance to turn over puzzles in our minds, or let us think aimlessly: real ‘blue sky’ thinking. Ok so I didn’t come up with profound new philosophical ideologies or solve great mathematical equations, but letting the mind wonder seems to contribute to mental health.
A fast descent down wide, smooth roads led us to a café where we ordered cola, coffees and (only!) the #2 addition to the patisserie collection: a box of ensaimadas. These are croissant-like in texture, but made in the exact shape of a piped poo that has been sat on. I am getting concerned that the Spanish might not take their patisserie as seriously as the French.
Next, an undulating, flattish section took us to the town of Sort where we watched athletic kayaking in the river rapids before locating a lunch café. I ordered a ‘bikini’ – actually a modest cheese and ham toastie, the building heat suppressing my appetite; but others hoovered down whole, plate-filling, pizzas.
The second col, an eleven mile climb to the Port de al Bonaigua (2072m) required 1122m of ascent in plus 40℃ temperatures. This route clearly required some discipline, and I headed off from the lunch stop hoping to focus into a rhythm. The heat was brutal, and the climb seemed endless. Ian Harling joined me (thanks Ian!) and with just a short stop to douse ourselves with water at a spring, we inched to the summit, joining Ali Bull near the top of the col. The hero of the climb was Ste Pritchard who drove up and down with water, ice and foods to everyone. Ste met us just as we reached the summit, out of drinking water and our bonces truly baked (Ste you are a hero!).
The glorious, and sadly imaginary, café at the top of the col, with shady parasols, cool drinks, and ice cream had been heartlessly replaced with a very real, working quarry. The summit signpost was adjacent to a vast rock-chewing machine spitting out great, dusty, piles of gravel. The noise was horrendous, and we left pretty sharpish to find a café lower down for ice cream, more coffee, and a gentle cycle down to the hotel in Tryp Vielha.
After a few beers in the evening, people were in good enough spirits to mess with the WhatsApp group name, with ‘school teacher’ John forced to step in, removing admin rights. Despite the flowing conversation, nobody is dwelling too much on tomorrow’s weather forecast; even hotter than today…
Author: Liz Rylott
Day 5 Vielha to Payolle
Here’s the rub: saddle sores. Every morning, naked derrieres are slathered in chamois cream then enrobed in Lycra and tenderised on a saddle for 6 – 8hours at 40℃. This sounds like a recipe Heston Blumenthall might have created. Delicious when performed on steak, but not so good on a bike saddle. To address the damage, each night many chose to liberally apply Sudacreme nappy rash cream, with an anonymous few going ‘commando’ in the evenings. Whatever peoples’ preferences, there were collective sighs this morning as tender bums hit the saddles and we headed south east to the first of the day’s three cols, the Col de Pontillion (1293m).
Today was a ‘rest’ day, so just the 58 miles and 2,552m ascent planned. The forecast was for hot weather, so most of us made an early start on the day heading off between 7-8am in small groups. A long descent to the base of the first col, cool morning temperatures, and amazing scenery put the riders in an agreeable mood, and most people bounced up to the summit. This col spans the French-Spanish border, and offered a good publicity photo opportunity for the Cystic Fibrosis Trust.
We descended west into France, the front-runners ploughing into a sticky speed-trap of freshly laid road gravel, later riders facing a 15 min wait for further gravel-laying, took a paddle in the cool water of the adjacent stream. At the bottom of the valley, lay the chic, French town of Bagnere-de-Luchon, ornately curled wrought iron railings, colourful facades and wide, tree-lined boulevards. A café was irresistible to our group, and, as now in France, patisserie expectations were high. Until the café owner informed us there was “seulement un croissant” in the whole café. I’m beginning to think this trip is not about the patisserie.
Further along the valley, we commenced the second climb of the day to the Col de Peyresourde (1569m). The temperature climbed more rapidly than I did, reaching 40℃ as I crossed the summit, another fierce climb in baking sunshine. However, there was a reward: the café at the top was serving batches of 12 sugared crepes for €6, the perfect cycling lunch.
A quick descent into the ancient, pretty town of Arreau, crossing a wide stone bridge over the river Neste, and up towards the final climb of the day, the Co d’Aspin (1489m). This climb, as the Col de Peyresourde, was pitiless. Although shaded near the start, the majority of the ride was in full sun, with Ali Bull’s Garmin topping 50℃. Slowly, riders crawled up to the col, each battling with not just the physicality of the climb, but the mental fight to continue, and not just lie down under every tree we passed!
Thankfully we all made the climb and are safely home. I have to stop here as battery low and wifi limiting. Tomorrow, The Tourmelet awaits. We can see it towering over us as we close our eyes tonight.
Author: Liz Rylott
Day 6 Payolle to Geus-D’Oloron
Today, the temperature on our ride reached FORTY-SEVEN DEGREES. The ride was our longest of the trip, starting with the Col du Tourmalat (2115m), then Col du Soulour (1474m), Col d’Aubisque (1710m) and Col de Marie Blanque, total trip distance 97 miles and 4,412m of ascent.
Following breakfast at 6:30am (some made porridge in their rooms earlier), people left in dribs and drabs to wind their way up the Tourmalat in the relative cool of the early morning. Everyone reached the summit without issue, descending into the town of Argeles-Gazost. Here, I added a yummy myrtle tartlette to the patisserie collection.
I’m not going to write much more tonight; there are only so many times you can say how scorchio, hot, baking, fierce, furnace etc it was. My oven has a temperature scale that starts at 50℃…
Everyone inched/crawled/walked/dragged themselves around the route. We all made it, and it’s a day we’ll all remember, for many reasons.
In this heat, it takes a special kind of complete idiot/courageous individual to do what we did today. Individuals with cystic fibrosis currently have a lifespan prognosis of just 40 years, donate a bit of cash now to help research a cure, and show your support/hilarity/concern for idiots cycling up mountains in 47℃ heatwaves.
Author: Liz Rylott
Day 7 Geus-D’Oloron to San Sebastian
Spoiler alert – today we reached the Atlantic!
After last night’s epic day out, perhaps rather too much post-ordeal euphoric beer drinking; and a night trying to sleep in an oven, we emerged for breakfast. Jane and I were the last to appear, and it was clear people had arrived very hungry. We scavenged remaining pastries and got out bikes ready for the off. Today I rose with Julian Ferrier, Brandon Pilling and Ian H; all great company, and wide-shouldered too. Ideal for a day’s drafting! (see below to know that I pulled my weight in the peleton). We stopped at cafes along the way to drink great coffee, munch pastries, and bruise local ears with our bad French. The weather was a chilly 28℃ by 10:30am, so we donned cardigans and thick woollen scarves, until it topped a more reasonable 30℃ at lunchtime. Decidedly lumpy, the 93 miles, with 2,301m ascent, helped iron-out any stiffness in our legs from the day before. A small kick up the Jaizkibel range (547m) towards the end of our ride gave us our first glimpse of the Atlantic, it’s glinting surface looked unbelievably inviting. To finish, a fast run into St Sebastian, through industrial, then increasingly urbanised, areas was a stark contract to the remote beauty of the mountains only 24 hours earlier.
The whole team gradually collected on the seafront in San Sebastian to drink cool beers and laugh over the week’s adventures. Ali and Jane Booth were later arrivals; they had been eating (unsanctioned by me) ice cream further up the seafront. While there was clearly a gender split in the ice cream v beer preferences, it cannot be said there was a gender split in abilities; we most definitely held our own on the road.
There are many physiological differences between men and women that should mean men have a competitive advantage in sports. Per pint of blood, men have more haemoglobin, which gives them a higher maximum oxygen consumption levels (VO2max). Men also have a higher ratio of muscle mass to body weight, although weight for weight, the muscles are the same. Men also have generally larger bones, with increased surfaces at the joints, and stronger ligaments. Conversely, there is a higher number of musculoskeletal injures in women.
It seems that woman have better balance due to our generally wider pelvises (there’s a plural I’ve not typed before) and lower centre of gravity – perhaps be useful on a bike fast downhill?
But what about endurance events? A quick scan on the internet tells me that woman are “more efficient than male athletes at converting glycogen to energy” (glycogen, comes from complex carbohydrates eaten in the diet: pasta, rice, potatoes etc; https://work.chron.com/physiological-differences-between-male-female-athletes-20627.html). Other webpages indicate that woman’s muscles tire less quickly. Clearly, there are lots of physiology and other ologies to wibble on about given time, but a major factor is still that woman are just not out there taking part in these events. Ali, Jane and I are the only woman out of almost 30 riders on this challenge, but we are most definitely giving the boys a run for their money. We just need a few more of us to stop the men being so annoyingly surprised when we whizz past them…woman get on your bikes!
Tomorrow is the last day, 79 miles, 2,548m to Bilbao. Safe ride everyone.
Author: Liz Rylott
Day 8 San Sebastian to Bilbao
Emptying the tank. This is a ‘holy grail’ phrase time-trial cyclists use to describe the pouring of one’s available energy reserves into a timed effort on a bicycle. The idea is not to finish with energy left, this would mean you could have gone faster, but even more importantly, not to use up all the reserves before the finish. Running out of energy before the end would result in ‘bonking’ at the side of the road (lying down, with no energy while a member of the public posts fig rolls into you), while the clock ticks on…
Today, I think I emptied the tank. Not over today’s ride, but cumulatively over the week. Each day has chipped away at my muscles, while each night has been insufficient to fully repair the damage. The result is that my thighs now feel like Tesco shredded beetroot.
To finish the trip, I set off from San Sebastian in a relatively big group of riders, we first performed the initiation ceremony that is cycling off in the wrong direction until everyone’s Garmin GPS device bleeps, then a U-turn with light swearing.
Today’s planned route was a relatively gentle 79 miles with 2,548m of ascent, focused into four, 200-300m climbs and panoramic views across the Atlantic. The weather was cloudy; we saw nothing all morning. The first climb of the day elicited predictable whimpers from bruised gluts and buttocks, but we all settled down to our own rhythm, pulling steadily into the cloud. For the descent, we swept down the hairpins like skiers, picking our line and leaning the bike into the corners; some riders own motorbikes and this shows in their smooth technique. I try to hold their line, and my nerve. Once on the flat, we come together as a group; it is more efficient to stay on the wheel of the rider in front than plough your own way through the air. Riding fast on the flat favours the larger riders with more muscular builds, perhaps a hindrance over the giant Pyrenean climbs earlier in the trip, now they are in their element. They seize the front of the peloton (I think with glee), and the rest of us hang on for dear life trying to decide if it is hurting more to stay on the train than it will to drop off and ride the same distance solo. Many times today I grit my teeth, and dig a little deeper to hang on. Julian Ferrier and Mike Evans thank you for the ride!
We have agreed to meet up for lunch in the old port town of Leketio. While we all arrive pretty much together, we have two problems. Today is San Pedro day in Leketio, and the townsfolk are celebrating. The party apparently includes the Kaxarranka dance, in which a traditionally-dressed man dances around the town on top of a chest carried by eight fishermen; the town is very busy. Our second problem, and a publicity ‘fail’ is the red and yellow cycling tops we are all wearing. These look a lot like national Spanish colours, and we are in the Basque country, on a Basque national holiday. Arriving here decked in red and yellow is considered a little bold by the locals. In the end, we sneak into a backstreet courtyard where the owner is amused that we are in fact English, and pleased to serve us.
We continued post-lunch over the remaining two climbs. A little jostling for position before the final ascent, with riders keen to make a ‘break for glory’ over the final line.
Apologies for finishing this blog a little late (Sunday 30th), on arrival in Bilbao, we commenced our celebrations which ran long into the night. This morning I had a very sore head, almost certainly from all the cycling.
Thank you for the very generous donations to the Cystic Fibrosis Trust, and kind comments on my blog. I’m now off to sit in a bath of Sudocreme.
Author: Liz Rylott